The governor is faced with tough budget decisions. He is trying to cut the fat out of state government and pressuring the Legislature to provide for new sources of revenue.
Decisions for a more efficient delivery of services need to be based on sound economics. His proposal to eliminate almost 400 jobs that design capital improvements for highways and airports and replace them with private sector consultants is not based on sound economics. These employees, all Alaskans, know the roadway and aviation systems and the challenges of constructing in a difficult environment.
Just how economically sound is the governor’s proposal to perform 100 percent of DOT’s design work by consultants? A 2008 General Accounting Office report concluded that contracting out is more expensive than using in-house staff.
There are other impacts besides the increased cost of using private sector consultants exclusively. Much of this work goes to the large consultants located in Anchorage. This means that wages from these high paying jobs will be leaving Juneau and Fairbanks and move to Anchorage. Another more concerning facet of the governor’s proposal is that these same large consultants use Lower 48 personnel for this work — thereby sending Alaska’s federal-aid dollars south. In these difficult economic times, now is not the time to be sending valuable local spending dollars to communities outside Alaska.
The Alaska DOT has been using consultants for many years. DOT is presently using consultants for about 55 percent of the design work necessary deliver the capital programs for highways and airports. Consultants have been historically used as a shock absorber to help the DOT when the program expands in certain years. They are also used when DOT lacks specific expertise, or when DOT doesn’t have adequate staff levels to complete the work in a timely manner.
Highway funding comes to Alaska via the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. Title 23 Section 302 U.S. Code says (a) Any State desiring to avail itself of the provisions of this title shall have a State transportation department which shall have adequate powers, and be suitably equipped and organized to discharge to the satisfaction of the Secretary the duties required by this title. In meeting the provisions of this subsection, a State may engage, to the extent necessary or desirable, the services of private engineering firms. The FAA has similar requirements. The question to be asked is whether the elimination of the Alaska DOT’s design staff will impact the state’s ability to receive and expend federal monies. I have contacted the Federal Highway Administration and my source says they have not been asked to weigh-in on this matter. Under the governor’s proposal, DOT may not be able to maintain the core competency required to continue receiving federal funds for the great majority of our capital projects.
Alaska is a unique state with its transportation system. Approximately 26 percent of our major highways sit atop permafrost leading to many engineering challenges and we have the highest per capita use of air transportation in the Nation. Furthermore, Alaska is the most seismically active state in the country. These design challenges have consistently been met by DOT engineers who for the most part have been raised and educated in Alaska.
The governor’s proposal to contract out 100 percent of the DOT design work (at increased cost) is contrary to ordinary common sense. Let’s hope he hears from consultants, contractors, Chambers of Commerce, and others who agree with me that this is a bad idea.
• Steven Bradford is a retired Chief Bridge Engineer for the Alaska DOT who lives in Juneau.